“States’ rights? You can’t be serious! What do you want to do—restore Jim Crow or bring back slavery?”

Any serious discussion of the American republic always comes aground on this rock, and it does not matter which kind of liberal is expressing the obligatory shock and dismay, whether a David Corn leftist at the Nation, a Jacob Weisberg neoliberal at the New Republic, or a David Frum minicon (or should that be “moneycon”?) looking for ways to pander and slander his way, if not to fame and fortune, then at least to expense account lunches and regular appearances on C-SPAN.

Even out here on the frontier, every hicktown mayor and two-bit caporegime knows how to scream racism whenever the rubes get in the way of some vast public-works project that promises an endless supply of lovely tax-boodle. Here in Rockford, according to the Gannett daily, you are a Nazi collaborator if you resent a federal takeover of the public schools and a racist bigot if you object to having your neighborhood turned into a warehouse complex of subsidized housing. When the county board chairman does not jump to in support of a sewer extension (into neighborhoods that are predominantly white), that, too, is racism according to the mayor.

In my wild youth—a period which, for Republicans, only ends in the mid-40’s—I used to make historical and constitutional arguments to show the agreement of Adams and Jefferson on the limited powers of the national government. I would cite the opinion of Northern Jeffersonians and point to the example of the Yankee Federalists who plotted secession (in the midst of war) at the Hartford Convention of 1814, but the argument always came back to race. No one in American history ever did anything, apparently, without intending to dominate and degrade women, Indians, and homosexuals. This reductio ad KKK is not confined to the political left; it is practiced shamelessly by right-to-lifers who equate Roe v. Wade with Dred Scott and by most of the disciples of one or another of the German gurus who tried to redefine the American conservative mind. Incapable of framing either a rational or an historical argument, the liberals of the left and right fall back on the tried-and-true devices of all ideologues: lies, threats, and incivility. Liberty—whether of the individual or of a community—rises in their gorge like a cheap Mexican dinner, and nothing can neutralize the pain except heavy and repeated doses of propaganda.

States’ rights, home rule, private schools, and freedom of association are all treated as codewords for racism, and when someone aspiring to public office is discovered to be a member of a restricted or quasi-restricted country club, instead of telling the press to mind their own business, he denounces himself for right-wing deviationism, fascism, and ethnic terrorism. He resigns immediately—thus insulting all his friends in the club who are now de facto bigots—and begs forgiveness. Even groups like the League of the South, that explicitly condemn racial prejudice are not exempt. So long as a group is “Southern” or “Anglo” or “hetero” or even exclusively Christian, it is a target, and when the inevitable attack docs come, many of the members run for cover, eager to be the first to find safety by denouncing their former allies.

Like Bukharin and other communists purged by Stalin in the 30’s, Americans accused of bigotry do not know how to fight back. While they should be spitting in the face of these latter-day Vishinskys and informers who are making civilized life impossible, they examine their own consciences for ever}’ unwholesome thought and every suspicion that the party line laid down by the leaders might fall short of revealed truth. Poor Bukharin knew he had done all too little to oppose Stalin, and, while jesuitically insisting that he had not performed this or that specific act of treason or terrorism, he accepted full responsibility for the fictional crimes attributed to his non-existent conspiracy. Americans accused of racism display this same Patty Hearst syndrome, acting like the kidnap victims who end up collaborating with their persecutors. They dare not oppose the revolutionary mentality of the regime, precisely because it is their mentality. Until we learn to throw off these leftist shackles that have been forced upon our minds, we can never be free.

The great mistake the right has made, all these years, is to go on the defensive. The federal principle that is illustrated by the traditional American insistence upon the rights of the states is not only ancient and honorable: It is, in fact, a universal principle of free societies and an expression of the most basic needs of our human nature. What is sometimes called devolution and sometimes subsidiarity is the principle that animates such diverse societies as Renaissance Poland, 19th-century Switzerland, ancient Athens, and the children of Israel before they degenerated to the point where they had to settle on the next-best form of government, namely, covenanted monarchy.

I do not propose to go over the evidence again. My point is only that states’ rights, whether or not it is a particularly useful concept in these times, is a perfectly respectable doctrine that should not bring a blush to the cheeks of any Swiss or Pole, Greek or Jew; and no American, whether he traces his political ancestry to Massachusetts or Virginia, should have to apologize for defending a principle that is the very essence of our Constitution.

To defend, for example, the Tenth Amendment is a futile gesture if we do not at the same time challenge leftists to justify the monopolization of power by a tiny oligarchy. Under “leftist I include, in very crude terms, anyone who supports the New Deal, the welfare state, and the usurped powers of the federal courts. It is they who, as lackeys of a regime that has deprived families and communities of their responsibilities and liberties, should be in the dock explaining their record as wreckers of society and destroyers of civilization. But in every society, the victors write not just the history but also the theology, and in American political theology, which is scarcely distinguishable from that of Robespierre, anyone who ever defended his people, respected his ancestors, and could tell left from right and straight from bent is sent to Siberia.

Leftist intellectuals have no qualms about going after any defender of states’ rights, hammer and tongs—or rather hammer and sickle, because so many of them have spent years apologizing for Stalin, Mao, and the architects of air American welfare state that has enslaved the poor. But even if we were—for the sake of argument—to grant their point, false as it is, that states’ rights is a codeword for segregation, a system that inflicted unnecessary humiliation upon millions of Americans of African descent, it is not as if ethnic prejudice is something new in the world. The Soviets, after all, did a pretty good job of genocide against the Jews, and both the Russian and the Chinese comrades did their best to eliminate the national identity of subject peoples.

One of the greatest butchers of the age was Stalin, a political leader whom upright leftists and sainted liberals like the late Sidney Hook spent years defending—palliating his crimes when they could not be denied and lying about them whenever it was possible. What sort of people have their morals so twisted that they can compare the slaughter of perhaps tens of millions of human beings—to say nothing of the war waged against religion, ethnic identify, and family life—with segregated restrooms and then conclude that segregation is worse than mass murder?

The only thing an honest ex-leftist can do today is to take a vow of silence on all things political. Either defend the crimes of Stalin and Mao, we should say, or repent and shut up. But the only repentance I have heard is the boiler-plate confession that they were “mistaken” in their ideas. That is like Dr. Bernard Nathanson’s confession that he did not realize abortion was murder. What was he doing in embryology class? What were the leftists doing when writers like Camus and Orwell were telling the truth about Stalin? They were too busy slandering Orwell and denouncing the American system that gave them everything they have. Their book contracts and professorships are stained with the blood of Stalin’s victims, and if they had a drop of decency or self-respect, they would devote the rest of their miserable lives to making restitution. Instead, they are so busy pointing out the mote in another man’s eye that they do not see the gulag in their own.

Stalinists are far from being the only villains: Trotskyists, socialists, New Dealers, limousine liberals all played their part in the demolition of civilized life, and now they (and their friends and relations) want to whine about unintended consequences and condemn the leftists who have kept faith with their ideology. It is not that they want to close the barn door after the horses are out. In fact, it is much worse: These leftists-turned-liberals have stolen the horses and now want to claim that they are the real owners of the barn, which, if they ever do get their hands on it, they will turn into a forced labor camp.

There is no point in denying that states’ rights can be made the pretext for tyranny—but so can republican government, the Christian religion, and Mom’s apple pie. However, in essence, an apple pie is meant to be eaten and enjoyed; in principle, Christianity teaches us to love our neighbor; and both republican government and federalism are rooted in the moral responsibility of ordinary’ men who refuse to trust either aristocrats or bureaucrats with unlimited power over their everyday lives. The federal principle, in particular, comes down to an either/ or proposition that only communists have had the courage to face: Since no one else can live my life for me (whether I am speaking as an individual or for a community), then no one else can make my decisions for me, and if it is hard for me or my school board or state legislature to make morally acceptable decisions, it would be harder still, no, impossible for others to make them for us.

Say what you will, talk all day, you will not find an argument against federalism that is not reducible to the principle: I and my sort are better than you and yours, and for that reason we have the right to manage your affairs. It is a simple enough argument that goes back to Plato:

The best people ought to govern.

We are the best people.

Therefore, we ought to govern.

The only problem lies in proving that the “you” in question—a federal judge, a school superintendent, an EPA administrator—is really better, in any significantly moral sense, than any of the rest of us. What do we know about Justices Earl Warren and William O. Douglas that would indicate their moral superiority’ over, say, Verne Presley or the roughneck running the “Zipper” at the county fair? Many of the good and wise men who have destroyed the federal principle—John and Robert and Edward Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King—were entirely despicable in their private lives. If we dare not trust a politician to babysit our daughters, why would we entrust him with the fate of our families, schools, and neighborhoods?

There is only one alternative to the federal principle, and it is the hydra-headed absolutism that shows a different face to every generation. As soon as we lop off the head of Robespierre, Napoleon’s face pops up out of the gushing wound; the comparatively benign kaiser and czar are replaced by Hitler and Lenin; and by the time Nazism has been destroyed and communism neutered, the absolutists find new ways of using “majority rule,” “the public interest,” and “democratic human rights” as instruments of oppression as degrading and ultimately as destructive as theories of proletarian dictatorship and the Aryan race. So great has been their success that the victims dare not whimper, and, if they do, they are branded immediately as bigots and reactionaries by the journalists, professors, and publicists who take pleasure in this kind of dirty work.

Their only moral code is that of the mugger who is ordinarily content to take your wallet and leave you unharmed but who, if you make the mistake of pleading with him or of appealing to his humanity, is outraged and beats you unconscious. When you wake up in the hospital, you are expected to apologize for the crimes of your great-grandfather, who did not permit his wife to vote and might have shot an Indian who was attacking his cabin.

If you have done harm to someone, you should apologize to him. (Let your ancestors make their own apologies.) But you owe nothing, not an apology, not an explanation, not a defense, to the political and legal predators who have taken away the most fundamental power given to us by our Creator: the ability to make mistakes. If leftists had been in charge from the beginning, the garden of Eden would have contained no fruit trees of any kind, and Eve would have been too busy pursuing her career to bother with Adam. It would have been, in other words, a perfect utopia, free of challenges or distinctions, inhabited by Harvard Law School professors passing judgment on each other’s judgments. Even Milton’s hell seems preferable.

Real people, however many are left, know better. If our enemies are unitarian and monolithic, we celebrate all the little differences between man and woman, tribe and tribe, nation and nation. That is both our weakness and our strength: It is our weakness, because we are too fragmented and diverse to fight openly against the power-monopolies that control both parties, the media, education, and the major religious and cultural institutions; but our diversity is also our strength and our hope, proliferating like yeast in thousands of different groups and networks. We may have lost the Republican Party and the Episcopal Church, but in independent evangelical churches and Latin Mass communities, in states’ rights movements in the West and the South, and in homeschooling associations that are springing up like mushrooms in a rotting tree trunk, we succeed in doing good in our own lives and laying the groundwork for the next cultural revolution.